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Aquavit: New fancy Swedish restaurant comes to downtown Minneapolis

  • Article by: Rick Nelson
  • Star Tribune
  • December 3, 1998 - 10:00 PM

Swedish cuisine: a self-contradiction, right?

Wrong -- At least at Aquavit, the highly rated, high-priced restaurant that this week opened its first branch outside New York City in downtown Minneapolis. Co-owner Hakan Swahn and chef Marcus Samuelsson are out to show Minnesotans that Swedish cuisine no longer means your grandmother's head cheese, lutefisk and boiled fish balls.

Instead, their menu features such creative, contemporary takes on Swedish food as venison loin with Arctic berry chutney and lingonberry sauce; black sea bass with dill-flavored beer broth; and smoked salmon with orange fennel sauce and Sevruga caviar.

"Sweden has its own innovative cooking traditions and that's where we're starting," said Samuelsson. "But we're in America now, so we're going to do things differently than we do in Sweden. We want to take people on a journey here. They may not recognize things, but I want them to trust us. By the time they eat their way through our menu, we'll be able to say, 'I told you so.' "

Not that Aquavit's food will come as a complete surprise. It offers a number of Swedish classics including herring, meatballs and gravlax. "You have to put some things on the menu that people will recognize as quintessentially Swedish," he said.

Of course, that also means aquavit (pronounced AH-kwah-veet), the restaurant's namesake liquor. Samuelsson makes nearly two dozen varieties and displays them behind the bar in specially designed jars. Like flavored vodkas -- and just as potent -- each is infused with a distinctive bouquet, including toasted caraway (the traditional variety of aquavit), St. John's wort, fennel, honey, lemon-orange and dill. The restaurant kitchen also will hawk its own packaged products including smoked salmon, mustard sauce, preserves, ginger-citrus cookies and coffee.

Style sleek, not folksy  

Food isn't the only star at Aquavit. The restaurant itself is as coolly sophisticated as Grace Kelly. Located on the first floor of the IDS Center's Crystal Court adjacent to the Marquette Hotel, the light-filled, high-ceilinged space is loaded with windows (and prime people-watching views), highly polished maple floors, warm birch woodwork and rich colors. Although there's not a rosemaled tchotchke in sight, the decor sports a number of subtle Nordic touches.

The handsome chairs with woven seats and backs pay homage to a classic design by Alvar Aalto, the Frank Lloyd Wright of Finland. Two knockout chandeliers -- including one inspired by an artichoke -- are the work of Danish architect Poul Henningsen. A series of commissioned lithographs, featuring hand-colored photographs of aquavit jars, come by way of the noted Swedish photographer Kristofer Dan-Bergman. A dining-room divider displays one-of-a-kind objects by Swedish glassmaker Örrefors. A pair of tapestries, woven by Kelly Marshall of St. Paul following an ancient Swedish tradition, grace the walls. For the entry, Swahn bought a small sofa and table from Swedish furniture giant IKEA, then had them refinished and reupholstered to his specifications.

"It feels like Scandinavia in here," said Swahn.

The restaurant is divided into a bar, an informal cafe, a small series of dining rooms and a semi-open kitchen which contains a chef's table where diners get a stove-side seat. "It's fun to work in an open kitchen," Samuelsson said. "Then cooking becomes a little more like theater."

Hey stranger, what  

gives? A little drama may likewise ignite in the cafe, which is split in two by a long, 12-seat marble table where Swahn hopes that strangers will spark conversations. But it remains to be seen whether such a scheme will work in the Land of 10,000 Stiffs.

"Family tables work in Sweden, and they work in New York City," Swahn said. "I think it will work here, too. After all, people sit at a bar and talk with one another, so why not a table?"

They might talk with one another about Aquavit's prices, which are in the stratosphere of the Twin Cities restaurant scene. In the cafe, dinner appetizers run from $6.50 to $9, entrees $12 to $15. In the dining room, dinner appetizers cost $8 to $14, entrees $18 to $29. "We're like any quality restaurant," said Samuelsson. "It's going to cost a little more. Still, you could go to a steakhouse and pay more."

Swahn, 44, grew up outside Stockholm and first visited the United States as a high-school exchange student. He returned to this country in 1980 and worked for several food companies. He opened Aquavit in midtown Manhattan in October 1987, in a former Rockefeller family townhouse across the street from the Museum of Modern Art.

Wonder-chef  

Samuelsson, 27, is something of a wunderkind. Orphaned in his native Ethiopia at age 3, he was adopted by a young Swedish couple and was raised in Göteborg, Sweden's second-largest city. By 24, he had studied and worked in Switzerland, Austria, France and the United States. He started at Aquavit in 1994 and was named executive chef the next year. Three months after he took over the Aquavit kitchen, the restaurant received a rare three-star review from New York Times critic Ruth Reichl.

Samuelsson hopes for similar raves here. Minneapolis, with its sizable Scandinavian population, seems like a no-brainer for an expansion-minded Swedish restaurant. But Swahn chose the city mainly for another reason.

"So many New York restaurateurs go to Miami's South Beach or Chicago or Los Angeles to expand," he said. "I felt that there was a niche for us here. San Francisco, for example, isn't much larger than Minneapolis, but it has so many more [high-end, fine-dining] restaurants. There are a number of good restaurants in downtown Minneapolis, but I feel that there can be more."

Swahn had planned to sign a lease for the LaSalle Plaza space that is now home to the Capital Grille. During negotiations, however, the building changed ownership and the deal fell through. Swahn's Minneapolis partner, Bob Hibbs, has an office in the IDS Tower and persuaded Swahn to look at the Crystal Court. Swahn fell in love with the space.

"I feel as if we are in the hub of the city," he said.

Both Swahn and Samuelsson plan to spend at least one week a month in Minneapolis. Another Swede, Roger Johnsson, 27, oversees the restaurant's day-to-day operations. The kitchen's staff of 20 includes a half-dozen Swedes, but don't expect to hear a lot of Svenska flying in the kitchen. English is definitely not Aquavit's second language.

"We're in America now," said Samuelsson. "I want our staff to see how we do things in America. That's why they're here."

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